Give the gift of ease and distance: Send a loved one off (on vacation) Going-away PRESENTS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Send a friend away for Christmas. Tell a relative to leave.

Travel can fill the empty spaces on the most confounding holiday gift list.

"What better gift could you give someone than a getaway?" asks Lynn Richardson, owner of the Inn on Summer Hill, a luxury bed-and-breakfast hotel near Santa Barbara, Calif., that sells elaborately boxed gift certificates.

An increasing number of travel services sell such certificates or offer open-ended tickets that let recipients make reservations later for their favorite dates and destinations.

"Anything you could purchase for yourself you can give as a gift, in almost any price range," says David Love, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents. "A car rental for a weekend or a week, flights, hotel rooms, a tour package, a cruise."

Most travel agents can arrange a gift vacation package. Some will throw in gift cards, picture catalogs or videotapes of exotic destinations to be put beneath the tree.

* Travel companies: American Express travel offices sell "gift checks" in denominations of $25, $50 and $100 that can be used like cash at businesses that take travelers checks. Most also sell gift certificates and set up gift accounts, so that recipients can then apply the money to a trip.

"People absolutely love this because it takes away the stigma that it's too expensive to give travel as a gift," says Rosalie Maniscalco, manager of the company's Park Avenue travel office in New York. "We make it very flexible."

* Transportation: Delta Air Lines offers coupon books that can be given as a gift to fliers over age 62. A book of four costs $596, a book of eight $1,036. Two coupons can be exchanged for a domestic round trip, while four will cover a round trip to Alaska or Hawaii.

United sells travel certificates good toward flights and most vacation packages. USAir gift certificates start at $25. Both are available at city ticket offices and airport counters.

Amtrak, though, has gift certificates in $25 denominations, available through travel agents and at rail station ticket windows. Passengers on express trains between Washington and Boston also can buy railroad-related items as gifts from TravelMall, a catalog available this Christmas for the first time. Orders can be placed free from on-board telephones, a service similar to that already offered by major airlines.

The American Automobile Association is pushing gift memberships this holiday. Available at local AAA offices, the membership certificates come in free Christmas cards. The cost is $52 for new members.

* Accommodations: It's tough to buy an open-ended stay at a hotel and give it as a gift because of roller-coaster variations in rates.

But the Sheraton chain allows members of its frequent guest program to transfer club credits into gifts of accommodations, flights or meals. "You can turn it into an entire vacation," says Sheraton spokeswoman Delores Sanchez.

Sheraton and other major chain reservation services, or travel agents, also can arrange for customers to pay the cost of someone else's stay at a hotel. The gift can be restricted to a set amount or open-ended and billed later to the giver's credit card.

Bed-and-breakfast stays are easier to give as gifts, because the dates of the visit are left to the recipient. More than half the nation's B&Bs; sell gift certificates, says the American Bed-and-Breakfast Association.

"We must do 300 gift certificates between Thanksgiving and Christmas," says Joan Wells, owner of the Queen Victoria Country Inn in Cape May, N.J., which starts promoting holiday certificates in June and offers discounts to guests who buy them by Thanksgiving.

"It's a real popular thing for kids to give parents," says Ms. Wells. "After a certain age, Mom and Dad don't need things any more. They need a little push out the door."

* The Northeast: A directory of New York vacations, available free from the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, lists packages that include accommodations, meals and museum discounts. Many can be purchased as a gift directly from hotels. Call (212) 397-8222.

To buy gift theater tickets, call the BroadwayLine at (212) 563-BWAY. A recorded menu offers show descriptions, performance times and ticket prices. Sales agents will take credit card orders for specific shows and dates.

A free reservations service is selling gift certificates this Christmas for accommodations, meals and tourist attractions in the resort community of Newport, R.I. Tailor-Made's certificates are good at 85 hotels and inns, as well as at larger restaurants. They are available by calling (800) 848-8848. Dest-inn-ations offers gift certificates for meals, transportation and accommodations on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Call (800) 333-INNS.

* Theme parks: Walt Disney World sells gift certificates in $10, $25, $50 and $100 denominations, good for admission, accommodations, merchandise or meals. Walt Disney World and Disneyland also offer Disney Dollars, which can be used as cash in either park.

A four-day pass to Disney World costs $125 for adults and $98 for children. A five-day pass costs $170 for adults, $135 for children. Passes, gift certificates and Disney Dollars for Walt Disney World can be ordered at larger Disney Stores or by calling (407) 824-6750.

One-, two- and three-day tickets are not available by mail order for Walt Disney World. But Disneyland sells one-, two- and three-day passports by phone at (714) 999-4565. The passes for adults cost $30 to $75. For children under 12, they're $24 to $60.

Universal Studios in Hollywood sells a one-year "Celebrity Pass" for $55 for adults and $48 for children and people over 60. It includes discounts at restaurants, hotels and other local attractions as well as for Universal merchandise, and can be ordered by calling (818) 777-1000.

Universal's Florida theme park sells gift certificates and tickets in advance through travel agents or by calling (800) BE-A-STAR. One-day passes cost $35 for adults, $28 for children. Both parks offer private VIP tours for $102 a person for groups up to five and $77 for groups up to 15 in Hollywood, and $85 a person for groups up to 15 in Florida.

* Cruise lines: The Holland-America Line is pushing cruises as "the perfect gift" this Christmas, with deep discounts for holiday sailings during the traditionally soft early winter season.

"Giving a cruise as a gift may not be the first thing that comes to peoples' minds, but it seems to be growing in popularity," says Rich Skinner, Holland-America spokesman.

* Resorts: Club Med vacations can be purchased in another person's name, but only if the buyer books a reservation for a given date and destination. Gift certificates are not available.

Major ski resorts sell season passes and lift tickets in advance by phone. Some also offer open-ended ski weeks or weekends or sell gift certificates. People can buy gift packages including travel, accommodations and lift tickets for the Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas in Colorado, for example.

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